Southcliffe and the Optimism of the British Landscape

Channel 4 have just screened the second episode of Southcliffe, a four part dramas series co-produced by Warp. The performances alone will make it award-winning a million times over, but what makes it stand out from perhaps anything that’s been on TV is its breath-taking cinematography. Against the bloody, harrowing plot, the dreary landscape is luminous and cruel in its beauty. Everywhere seems familiar, almost a comfort in all the chaos of the story, it really is astonishing television.
In the UK, we don’t have mysterious deserts or chaotic rain forests, but we do have eerie moors, bleak coasts, perilous mountain ranges and acres and acres of green, devastating countryside. And it’s not just the natural beauty that the UK can boast. Shabby high rise flats, looming power stations, garish games arcades, grimy pubs, industrial estates; all of it displays a charm that is unique and wonderful. For all of the trials and tribulations associated with filming in the UK (mainly financial), you really couldn’t ask for a more beautiful and eclectic landscape.
Location and landscape are often a source of fascination in British filmmaking; the scenery becomes an extension to the drama; it takes on its own character.
Andrea Arnold is one director who draws from the landscape in nearly all of her films. The unforgettable tension in the claustrophobic Glaswegian tower blocks in Red Road, the haunting, visceral images of the wild moors in Wuthering Heights, the dingy, hopeless estates in Fish Tank. Lindsay Anderson depicts Margate as a horrifying, ghoulish nightmare in his unforgettable documentary ‘O Dreamland’ (seek it out is you haven’t seen it). Not a single word is uttered, Anderson’s disgust all conveyed through lights and fairground rides. The baron shores in Carol Morley’s brilliant Edge create more loneliness, a greater sense of loss. And then there’s Harold Shand, standing with the London Docks behind him ready to take on the world in The Long Good Friday.
What’s even more fascinating is the way that British filmmakers can take seemingly banal scenery and turn it in to a thing of wonder. As in Southcliffe this evening, even when the plot might leave you feeling desperate, there’s a sense of awe and almost hope. Lynne Ramsay can find beauty in a pile of rubbish, where Antonioni can find paranoia and terror in a local park.
And it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s always the glamorous London in Darling, A Hard Day’s Night, even Lock, Stock…, the postcard image that is often portrayed and is yet less truthful, less inspiring.
The ever changing landscapes of such a small island are reflected so lovingly in British cinema. Even when things are horrendously bad, there’s still a sense of optimism. It could be worse.

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